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Navigating a Red-State Book Tour: A Week in the Life of Samantha Allen

Navigating a Red-State Book Tour: A Week in the Life of Samantha Allen

Author: Edit Team

April 25, 2019

“Now, I wish I could write a Real Queer America 2 about this magical book tour—and then do a book tour for that sequel while writing Real Queer America 3, repeating the process ad infinitum. That’s how much I love being with my LGBT red-state friends.”

“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBTQ writer, or LGBTQ person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s column comes to us from author Samantha Allen.

Samantha Allen is a GLAAD Award-winning journalist and the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Mornings are terrible. My novelist brother-in-law rises at dawn to make a cup of coffee and free write for an hour before his wife and child wake up. He is probably not human.

The only mornings I can stand are mornings like this one, when I wake up in a hotel that serves a buffet-style breakfast. I have just finished three Real Queer America readings in three cities in three days. First up was St. Louis for Left Bank Books, then Seattle for Elliott Bay, and finally last night, Chicago for Women & Children First.

My fitness tracker tells me that I have averaged about four hours of sleep per night, thanks to the early morning flights. But I jolt awake in the Loyola Station Hampton Inn anyway because my subconscious knows there’s a stainless-steel pan full of bacon waiting for me downstairs. It’s not like I need that much bacon—but it’s nice to not feel limited.

Breakfast is perfect: The bacon has almost been “cremated” by the heating lamp, to borrow a favorite descriptor from FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks fame. The orange juice is foamy in precisely the way it can only be when it comes out of a soda machine.

This is the ideal end to a 72-hour stretch of my book tour that has been exhausting, yes, but mostly thrilling: Meeting dozens of LGBTQ people in bookstores every day is literally life-giving. Queer people are the opposite of mornings: Amazing.

Surviving O’Hare International Airport is today’s chief task. After going through security, I buy two copies of The New York Times at a Hudson News because my op-ed about LGBT life in red states is running in the print edition. I’m going to use one of the newspapers to take a “proof of life”-style picture to post on Instagram. (Look, Mom, I did it!)

Maybe I’ll frame the other one. A Times byline is the sort of goal that a writer—especially a Capricorn—dreams about achieving. But in reality, the paper will probably sit in my closet and get yellow. (Capricorns are also stingy and a frame would be an unnecessary expense.)

On the plane, I read Ben Goldfarb’s beaver monograph Eager. Like some writers, I am paranoid about reading too frequently in my own area for fear of being influenced—so instead, I am almost exclusively reading animal nonfiction.

A day like today, with its major career milestones and its expenses-paid travel, is the authorial ideal. At least, this is how an author’s life is shown in movies. But not many days are like this. What happens after I land is much more representative of my routine.

Back in Seattle, where I have been living for the past few months, I take a Lyft home and then—still running on next to no sleep—interview a transgender service member for a news story I’m writing about Trump’s military ban. Before passing out, I call a local health clinic to make an appointment to get my estrogen prescription refilled.

Finally, I sleep—but not through the night. At 10:30 PM, I wake up to fetch my wife Corey from her restaurant job. After several reunion kisses, Corey runs into the grocery store for some basics while I eat McDonald’s in the parking lot so my body at least has some energy to burn for the next few hours.

Back in our apartment, blessed with our first full night together in too long, we do the most romantic thing we can conceive of: Catch up on The Bachelor while cuddling on the couch. (Straight people are often mystified that we like this show. We tell them that we watch it for the same reasons they watch drag: It’s heterosexuality to the extreme.)

By 1 AM, I am exhausted but I can’t sleep yet. If I were my brother-in-law, I could rise early and finish my news story in the morning—but I’m me, so instead I burn the midnight oil to write the damn thing so that it will be nearly ready for me to file when I awake.  I do all my best writing in the stillness of night—and most of my worst, too.

Cover of Real Queer America by Samantha AllenFriday, March 15, 2019

I wake up, shower, and wrap up my news story before zipping over to the KUOW radio station in Seattle’s University District to do an interview with the KERA show “Think” in Texas. One of the joys of writing a red-state LGBT travelogue like Real Queer America is that I get to talk to radio hosts all over the country, instead of focusing primarily on the New York and Los Angeles markets.

(Also, everyone in Texas apparently listens to KERA in the middle of the day because while I’m still in the studio talking to Krys Boyd, I start getting texts from every Lone Star stater I know telling me, Oh my God, I’m on their radio right now.)

I am not a religious person anymore but I do believe in the breakfast sandwich. There is a restaurant called Morsel a few blocks from KUOW that serves perhaps the best one I have ever eaten: prosciutto, arugula, a fried egg, manchego cheese, and some spicy aioli, all served inside a biscuit that is optimally fluffy without sacrificing the structural integrity necessary for it to function as a sandwich bun. It is divine—and it is my reward for making it through yet another interview, because they make me anxious no matter how many of them I do.

I handle work emails while I digest, and then meet Corey for a late afternoon coffee before my doctor’s appointment. My estrogen is running out. I need a new prescribing physician, so I go through the rigamarole of filling out the intake paperwork, and then coming out as a transgender woman to yet another series of white-coat-wearing strangers. It’s annoying—but a bit less so because I’m in Seattle, where a large LGBT population has seemingly made the nurses more familiar with the fundamentals of transgender medicine than most.

I am ambivalent about living here given my deep, lived attachments to red states. At the time I wrote Real Queer America, I was in my third year of living in Florida, after five years spent in Atlanta. By the time the book came out, we had moved West to be near family.

I am not my full queer self in Seattle. Far from it. I miss Georgia sometimes and Florida often and Tennessee every day. But my parents are here. And so far, in my decade-plus struggle against depression, evergreen trees and ferry crossings have been the most palliative pleasures to date.

In a few years, I hope, we will move to Montana. Or we’ll buy a travel trailer and roam the American South. For now, this weird blue-state city is at least a pretty stopover.

I zip my wife over to her restaurant job after my doctor’s visit and then walk the 2.8 mile-loop around Green Lake, a small patch of water on the city’s north side that is 50,000 years old. On beautiful afternoons like this one, the trail is packed with sun-starved walkers clinging to their coffee cups. The heterosexuals carry hot drinks; the queers carry cold ones. (That’s how you can tell them apart.)

But I don’t spend as much time people-watching on my walk as I do looking for the Great Blue Heron that I can find here most days, standing majestic on some lakeside tree branch, fanning his shaggy feathers in the breeze. He is the king of this ancient lake—and I am but a visitor.

Great Blue Herons like him only live for about 15 years. I wonder sometimes how we would behave if the average human lifespan were either much shorter or much longer, either 15 like the bird or 50,000 like the lake. We would live fast and wild as birds or slow and deep as water. As it stands, mortality has an awkward duration—long enough to do something like write a book, but never long enough to read them all. So much will be left unfelt.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

At last, I have slept for eight mercifully consecutive hours. (After my walk Friday evening, I laid down on the couch and essentially waited for my wife to get out of work, at which point we went right to bed, the exhaustion of the week having caught up with me.)

In the morning, Corey and I laze around the house, catching up on all the TV we missed when we were apart.  Wasted Saturdays are sad in hindsight, but I’m often so exhausted from work that I spend most of Saturday sleeping, most of Sunday dreading work, and maybe two hours late Saturday night actually enjoying myself.

When the weather gets outrageously nice—as it does in Seattle during the summer—it will be a criminal offense to stay indoors. But for now, we let a few hours slip by, content to be motionless. Cuddling, for us, is a sacrament—so maybe this Saturday isn’t a waste after all.

Before long, Corey has to go back to work. Left in our apartment alone, I do all the chores I’ve neglected while I’ve been out of town. I cannot write unless our space is at the very least tidy, and ideally clean; my mind is messy enough as it is. It’s a hoary observation by now but you can usually tell how much a writer is procrastinating by assessing the cleanliness of her room; but that’s not procrastination, really, it’s part of the process.

Once my house is in order, though, I leave it immediately instead of staying home to get some words down. My new friends Clara Pluton and Val Nigro, co-hosts of the hilarious Hot Takes with Hot Dykes Podcast, are performing stand-up at a monthly event in Capitol Hill called QTPOC is Not a Rapper, and that sounds so much nicer than writing alone.

Clara and Val are—as they often introduce themselves— “real-life lesbian lovers” and when they invited me to come on their podcast, I agreed based on the title alone. They then came to my Seattle Real Queer America reading and, after the audience spent most of the Q&A discussing very serious political queries, Clara asked me about my birth chart. The love was instantaneous.

Val’s set tonight is about how a man on the street hawking CDs once tried to persuade her to buy one by shouting, “Come on! Do it for Ellen!” Clara, who uses they/them pronouns, tells a story about about the disgusting reason why they had to quit their job cleaning Airbnbs. You’ll have to go see them perform to find out what it was. (I’m not doing Clara and Val any justice by attempting to translate their comedy into diaristic prose, so go look them up, please.)

I drive them home—giving free rides to people is perhaps the number one way I try to make new friends, which explains a lot about how I ended up writing a road trip book—and then pick up my wife from work. We collapse together on the bed.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The “Sunday Blues” is what I call them. I like to attribute my weekly sadness spell to the two decades I spent in the Mormon Church, when Sundays meant three hours of meetings on one of your only two days off from school or work. But at this point, a decade after leaving Mormonism, I should probably look for a different and more recent scapegoat.

I would wallow for a bit in the morning but Corey isn’t feeling well when we wake up. She needs some sustenance, so I run out to pick up a sandwich for her from her favorite spot, dutiful wife that I am. Corey accepts the food delivery and I go out to Greenlake for another stroll around the lake, determined to move my body since I’m not on an airplane.

When I get home, a high school student has emailed me a few questions about an article I once wrote on The Bachelor’s heteronormativity. This happens sometimes: Students want to quote you in their projects, or their teachers have assigned them to reach out to a writer. I have never responded more quickly to such a request than I did to this one. (They’re usually about something more serious than the world’s premier reality dating show.)

I type to her, in part: “As a queer woman, I find The Bachelor to be a fascinating cultural product because it exaggerates heterosexual dating practices to such an extreme that it almost exposes them as parodic.” Judith Butler would be proud.

Corey has spent most of the day recovering from her ailments, so later that night I cook her one of our favorite quick meals: chicken teriyaki, with some Panko baked onto it for extra texture. (Corey likes things crunchy.) This gives me an excuse to whip out my favorite appliance: a Zojirushi rice cooker. Throw in the rice, dump in the water, push down the lever, and voilà. It would be nice if writing a book were so easy; instead, it’s like individually boiling a single grain of rice at a time until you have a whole bowl.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Dallas airport—much like the Texas gas station chain Buc-ee’s—is a lot larger than it needs to be. The train between the terminals travels over wide swaths of concrete nothingness, as if to say that the buildings are far apart simply because they can be.

I’m back in this immense place for the second time in as many weeks to catch a connecting flight, this time to Austin for a Real Queer America reading at Book People. I spent the flight in from Seattle working on an article about former ex-gay leaders, and I will have to chip away at it on the quick flight up to Austin, too. But for now there is the delicious pleasure of eating a fried chicken sandwich, using my luggage as a makeshift dinette.

The flight to Austin is comically short, barely long enough for a beverage service. I always order Diet Coke on planes because it gets extra fizzy at high altitudes and flight attendants will often give you the whole can instead of slowly pouring out half of it. (If you were to ask me for a piece of writerly advice, I would probably give you tips like that instead.)

My first priority upon landing in Austin is food, as anyone’s should be. Before I even go to the hotel to drop off my bag, I take a cab to the nearest Torchy’s Tacos. It’s a basic choice, I know, but I fell in love with their green chile queso when I was here for Real Queer America, protesting against the 2017 “bathroom bill,” and I’m eager to dive into some more of it, for nostalgia’s sake. (It tastes exactly the same, which is wonderful—and the state of Texas is still considering anti-LGBT legislation, which is not so wonderful.)

All of the best foods were born in red states—and if you read Real Queer America with an eye for it, you’ll quickly realize that I’m as food-motivated as a dog. When I was writing it, I ate barbecue in Mississippi, biscuits in Tennessee, and Ethiopian food in Atlanta. But nowhere was the food more richly rewarding than here in Austin. Queso here is queer community building. We protest—and then we dip chips into liquid cheese. (To everything there is a season.)

At the DoubleTree just north of downtown, I take one of those unnecessarily long hotel showers—the sort that leaves your shoulders feeling burned from the hot spray. I dry off and transcribe some interviews for my article, all while watching the HBO documentary on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes out of the corner of my eye. Everyone on my social media feed is making fun of her deep voice, which I have complicated feelings about as a transgender woman who has had to train her natural baritone into, ideally, a low alto.

All I know is that I find her speech soothing—which is probably part of how she managed to con investors so successfully. So instead of brainstorming some turgid think piece about deep-voiced women, both cis and trans, I let Elizabeth Holmes lull me to sleep.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

On book reading days, I am the opposite of food-motivated. When I speak in front of an audience, I want to be an empty vessel. If I were still Mormon, I would do it for spiritual reasons. Mormons fast every first Sunday to get closer to God and gain personal clarity.

Now, I do it because I don’t want my stomach to make noise near a microphone.

So instead of going on another Austin food adventure, I spend the entire morning—and much of the afternoon—sprawled out on the king bed typing up the remainder of that article about former ex-gay leaders, filing it just when I’m beginning to feel faint. After taking a Lyft to Book People, I assess my culinary options: a 24-hour diner across the street that promises comforting food that would be too filling for my current circumstances, or a Whole Foods where I can eat a sad slice of two-hour-old pizza to tide me over until dinner. I choose sad pizza.

Readings are just delightful, especially when you have an audience full of LGBT and allied Texans, like the one that has congregated upstairs in Book People. The added twist with this one is that C-SPAN 2 is filming it for their Book TV programming. I agreed to let them film it ages ago without really thinking through how that might affect my reading, so I quickly scan my possible excerpt choices for profanity. (Real Queer America’s not a George Carlin routine, but there is a roughly PG-13 amount of F-bombs between its covers.)

Even after choosing a profanity-free excerpt, I now have to reckon with uttering following sentence on national television: “The last time I was in Texas, I was on my way to get a vagina.”

(This predicament reminds me of the time that I had to record the audiobook version of my last book, Love & Estrogen, which is an intimate retelling of the early days of both my gender transition and my relationship with Corey. When I was writing Love & Estrogen, I didn’t think twice about writing down a phrase like “rectovaginal fistula”—one of the complications of sex reassignment surgery I was worried about—but then months later, I found myself standing in an audio booth in front of a total stranger, stumbling over and over again over the pronunciation of that term, absolutely red-faced.)

I swallow down the embarrassment this time—and plow through the “vagina” sentence. Let C-SPAN do with it what they may. The audience laughs, and I’m relieved enough to switch to autopilot for the rest of the excerpt. At the advice of my literary mentors, I don’t like to read aloud for very long; though I’m proud of the book, I’m much more interested in engaging with the people who have carved time out of an evening to talk to me. In the audience are transgender people, gay people, lesbians, parents of LGBT kids, and, of course, a handful of folks who just stumbled onto the event with no idea what the subject matter would be. I wish I had hours and hours to hear their stories and write them each a thank you note for coming—but instead I try to have a quick conversation with everyone who comes to the signing table, so I can write a little personalized note on the title page.

But my deepest gratitude is reserved for Houston drag queen Angelina DM Trailz, a new friend of mine who has come all the way to Austin for the reading. I met Angelina virtually when I interviewed her for a story about gay bars that stay open on Christmas Day—and I was instantly sucked in by her charisma. (She sometimes livestreams herself eating Whataburger late at night, and that’s exactly the sort of content that can still make the internet feel worthwhile.)

Angelina, dressed in resplendent Selena drag that she had to put on in a Buc-ee’s bathroom stall on the way to Austin, came to the reading with an entourage of two, both of whom accompany us now to dinner at the divey but delicious Texas Chili Parlor.

We share queso—because duh, of course we do—and I nosh on a fajita platter, while we all chat about immigration, state politics, and transgender identity, tucked away in a corner apart from the joint’s regulars. Moments like this are exactly why I fell in love with Texas when I came here to write Real Queer America. Most of the stops I made in the book were places where I had previously spent a significant amount of time or formed some sort of personal connection; Texas, on the other hand, was mostly new, but by the time I left, I wanted to stay forever. The only thing warmer than the love of LGBT Texans is the state itself on a summer day.

Angelina, I learn, has managed to book a slot to perform at Rain on 4th, hence the Selena drag, so we roll over to the nearby bar where something called “Drag Class” is currently in session. My two favorite drag performers of the night—besides Angelina, of course—come dressed as Avril Lavigne and Sonic the Hedgehog, respectively. But Angelina’s number—a Selena medley beginning with “Como La Flor”—is an absolute showstopper. She works the crowd, and when she makes her way to me, I tip her with the $10 bill I have been saving for this occasion. (I’m not trying to brag about being a good tipper—Angelina literally drove two and a half hours to see me, so a Hamilton for gas money isn’t exactly the height of altruism.)

When the evening wraps, the entourage disperses—Angelina back to Austin, and me back to the DoubleTree where, in an homage to my beautiful new friend, I order Whataburger (with spicy ketchup, of course) and pass out on the bed.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When I was writing Real Queer America, I didn’t realize that I would get to travel across the country again to promote it. Intellectually, I knew there was such a thing as a “book tour,” but as a first-time author that possibility seemed so far away that it seemed non-existent. Lost in the task of bringing the book to life, I didn’t think about what came afterward.

Now, I wish I could write a Real Queer America 2 about this magical book tour—and then do a book tour for that sequel while writing Real Queer America 3, repeating the process ad infinitum. That’s how much I love being with my LGBT red-state friends.

The trip back to Seattle is annoying, as air travel usually is. I have a quick connection in Salt Lake City, where—back in 2017—I began the road trip that became Real Queer America. The airport is filled with young Mormon families, reminders of an alternate present in which I never transitioned and raised a flock of kids instead. As my connecting flight to Seattle takes off, I look out the window at the Wasatch Mountains to the south, where I once drove around aimlessly as a student at Brigham Young University, knowing that I wasn’t—indeed could not be—a man but not realizing that there were other possibilities.

Now, I am an author in the sky—“Skymantha” is what Corey calls me when I am aloft—and although I’m not fabulously rich or extremely successful, I am pleased with how far I have traveled since my BYU days, both personally and literally. Back at home, I jot down a quick article. I am exhausted—but before I fade entirely, I check the date of my next trip.

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